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Water quality bill to Reynolds; lawmakers argue over what’s next


Today’s vote in the Iowa House of Representatives sent Senate File 512 to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is expected to realize her wish to make the water legislation the first bill she signs. 

The legislation eventually will divert gambling receipts now used to pay off bonds, and a sales tax on water, to free up an estimated $282 million over the next 12 years for voluntary work that is expected to reduce fertilizer and soil runoff and other pollution. 

Before the 59-41 mostly party-line vote to approve the Senate bill, representatives rejected a motion to substitute last year’s House bill championed by Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Boone Republican. That bill included money from a revolving loan fund, as well as requirements for monitoring and public reporting designed to track progress. 

Baltimore, one of several Republicans who voted against the Senate file today, topped off a sometimes testy House debate this morning by suggesting the House needed to do more than have something to list on campaign postcards. “I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box,” Baltimore said. “It befuddles me to understand and comprehend what kind of leadership we are showing Iowans by receding from a wildly bipartisan bill. … It is a failure of leadership and it lacks integrity to go backwards.”

Four Democrats voted in favor of the legislation: Bruce Bearinger of Oelwein, Helen Miller of Fort Dodge, Scott Ourth of Ackworth and Todd Prichard of Charles City. 

Four Republicans voted against it: Baltimore, Mary Kay Hanusa of Council Bluffs, Jake Highfill of Johnston and Guy Vander Linden of Oskaloosa.

Dubuque Democrat Chuck Isenhart blasted the Senate bill for lacking the monitoring, public reporting of water test results, goals and timelines that House members had envisioned last year. “We are saying that a bill that was not considered good enough last year now is seen as good enough,” Isenhart said. 

Several lawmakers during today’s debate said they don’t trust legislative leaders to deliver on a promise to revisit the bill this session to make improvements. 

Rep. John Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake who was managing the bill, told his House colleagues that lawmakers already are drafting additional legislation to beef up Iowa’s work on water quality — a perennial issue that touches on workforce attraction and retention, quality of life, and public health. Today’s action came after discussions spanning parts of three legislative sessions. Improved water quality is among the priorities of major business groups, including the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

“This is just the beginning of the discussion,” Wills told lawmakers.

Rep. Art Staed, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, wasn’t buying it. “We know this will be it. Nothing else will happen,” he said. 

In a statement, Gov. Reynolds praised passage of the bill, but added: “Make no mistake. Passing this long-awaited legislation does not mean the water quality discussion is over. It should ignite a continuing conversation as we begin to implement and scale best practices that will continue to make an impact on water quality in Iowa.”

Various interest groups have argued for far greater spending. Groups ranging from the Iowa Environmental Council to the Greater Des Moines Partnership have supported legislation to increase the state sales tax by 3/8ths of 1 percent to put money into a voter-approved state account for conservation and recreation work. That would raise an estimated $150 million a year or more, but lawmakers have long balked at raising the tax.

The 2013 State Nutrient Reduction Plan that has been the backbone of state efforts was projected at the time to cost $77 million to $1.2 billion a year to address runoff issues.

Joe Murphy, senior vice president of government relations and public policy for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the bill passed today is an “important first step.” He added that the Partnership will continue to push for additional legislation, which could provide a mix of sales taxes, pollution trading, revolving loans or other sources to help pay for conservation projects. 

“I don’t think anybody would say this is going to be the last step,” Murphy added. “This not going to be solved in one or two years.”

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